With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics still more than two years away, many members of the United States volleyball team are playing for professional teams overseas.
Elite volleyball players head for locales as distant as Siberia in the winter, allowing them to earn a living while chasing Olympic dreams. For the top players, it can be a comfortable living with salaries in the six figures.
But for most, indoor pro leagues overseas allow players to continue doing what they love beyond college, make a little money and perhaps aim for a higher level with the ultimate goal of earning one of the 12 spots on the United States Olympic team.
Tim Kelly, whose said his agency, Bring It Promotions, represented more than 200 athletes, added that about 25 American women and 10 men were making more than six figures. A handful can command more.
“The average sports fan would be blown away if they found out that anyone was making a million dollars net playing volleyball,” Kelly said. “That continues to shock people.”
Several popular and competitive pro leagues compete abroad, including teams in Russia, Italy, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea. They provide opportunities for the elite pros and players out of college who are not quite ready for the 9-to-5 grind, Kelly said.
But going that route has many challenges. Players wind up in foreign countries unable to speak the language and with scant support systems. Many teams are limited in the number of foreign players they can have on their rosters, so companionship from others in the same situation is not an option. Communication can be difficult.
Still, they take home nearly all they earn. Room and board, transportation, medical care and everything else is taken care of. So even entry-level players may come home after a season with $8,000 in their pockets. And they receive training and competition that can help them reach a higher level.
“I always tell people you have to be ready for an adventure and not to have too many expectations,” said Courtney Thompson, a setter who played on the United States women’s team that won the silver medal at the 2012 London Games. “It’s a lot different than a lot of people think because we have nothing like it in the United States. They train differently, they play differently, the lifestyle is obviously different — which can be really cool, but it can also make it difficult.”
Thompson, who was a standout for the University of Washington, made the 2012 Olympic team and played a key role when the veteran setter Lindsey Berg went down with an Achilles’ tendon injury. The United States women lost in the gold medal match to Brazil.
Thompson plays in Switzerland for Volero Zurich. Last season while playing in Poland, she was the subject of a documentary, “Court and Spark,” about her odyssey abroad as a pro athlete.
She said: “The first year, I remember that every time they would give me a check — which wasn’t much every month — I would say, ‘Thank you, thank you so much, thank you.’ And finally, my boss was like: ‘Courtney, you can stop thanking me. This is your job.’ It’s something you’ve done for free for so long.”
Other United States Olympians working overseas include Jordan Larson-Burbach with Dinamo Kazan in Russia, Danielle Scott with Brasilia Volei in Brazil, Matt Anderson with Kenit Kazan in Russia and David Lee with Tang Dynasty Hotel Shanghai in China.
Athletes need to be smart about the adventure are getting into, said middle blocker Rachael Adams, who plays in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“That’s the scary thing about playing overseas,” she said. “You have to negotiate these things, fight for what you want and know what you deserve. You could have in your contract a car, apartment, utilities, a flight ticket home and back for Christmas, and more. But if your agent doesn’t negotiate it for you, or your team doesn’t believe you’re worth it and doesn’t want to pay that much on top of paying you, you won’t get any of these things.”
To help athletes navigate, Adams and Geena Urango started the website Athletes Abroad. It caters not only to volleyball players but to all American athletes who play professionally in foreign countries.
Urango, who played indoor and sand volleyball at the University of Southern California, said she felt especially isolated overseas because she made the leap to be with her boyfriend, middle blocker Max Holt, who played last season in Italy before going to Russia this season.
Athletes share their experiences on the site, but it also offers advice on packing, diet, taking your pet overseas and even “planning a wedding from 5,309 miles away.” The site connects pen pals, too.
“In the end, it’s an experience not many people get to live themselves,” Urango said. “Finding the positives of living overseas can be tough when you do feel alone and like you’re missing out on so much at home. But when you do find them, the whole experience abroad is actually quite rewarding.”
Rachael Adams and Geena Urango have both lived and experienced the expat professional athlete life. Being away from family and friends for months at a time can be tough, which is why they created this site for "Athletes Abroad."
Think of it as a second home for those living in unfamiliar places, a welcoming community for athletes and fans, or for those going overseas for the first time, a site with tons of advice to make the most of your new adventure. Welcome abroad!